Finding myself standing in front of a large, brightly lit cooler with dozens (pun intended) of packages of eggs to choose from, I am confounded by the difference between free range and free run eggs. In my lazy attempt to be a good consumer, I try to go for the one that subjectively sounds the best, and promise to go home and do my homework. I am sharing my results with you.
Free Range eggs are what we imagine in our minds; chickens, free to roam the great outdoors, spread their wings, eat grass and lay their eggs where they darn well feel like it. Free Run eggs are a modified version of this. They are raised in large barns where they have the freedom to roam about, are given access to the outside for an allotted period every day, and provided with nesting boxes in which to lay their treasure. By this definition, it seems, most hobby farmers with a few laying chickens produce Free Run eggs. Understandably, Free Range eggs are much more expensive to produce because spoilage is higher and more effort is needed to collect the eggs which are likely less uniform in size. Free Run eggs are slightly cheaper as the chickens are more tightly controlled. Chickens in battery farms are tightly packed in with very little room to move; their eggs, once laid, are funneled down a conveyor belt to be processed in a big factory. This is the cheapest method; less manual labor, more automation, higher yields, more uniformity.
Consumers can become misled easily, into thinking that buying free run or free range eggs are healthier. The “free” part simply refers to the quality of the chicken’s life; while ethically important, doesn’t address the composition of the eggs, or the presence or absence of antibiotics, which is a huge issue. Antibiotics are a necessity on battery farms where disease can wipe out hundreds of chickens in one fell swoop. All chickens are routinely given antibiotics whether they need it or not leading to antibiotic resistant strains of disease that have huge implications for humans who are unknowingly ingesting antibiotics with their scrambled eggs. To avoid antibiotics, look on the label of the egg carton and it will say something like, “chickens were raised without antibiotics”. Another big issue in battery farms; and likely in some free run/free range farms is the growth hormones fed to the chickens. Typically, an unadulterated chicken will mature into egg laying around 10 to 12 months. Battery farmed chickens are finished their egg laying life by that time! Battery chickens only live around 2 years because their bodies are totally used up. Organs are forced into service before they are fully mature and their little bodies burn out fast. When a chicken is no longer able to lay eggs, it is sent to the poultry processing farm, then onto the supermarket for us to eat. To avoid this, look for labels that say grown without hormones or antibiotics. Just because your package says free range or free run, doesn’t automatically mean without growth hormones or antibiotics.
What about Omega 3 fatty acid? Eggs that contain high amounts of Omega 3 are laid by chickens who are fed 15-20% ground flax in their diet. This means that an Omega 3 chicken produces eggs with 10 times the amount of Omega 3 than their non-flax brethren. Omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fat is important for the healthy development of your brain, eyes and nerves, and many of us eating a western diet low in fish and other rich sources of this nutrient could use the little extra help that Omega 3 eggs can offer us.
In conclusion, free range and free run refer only to the conditions in which the chickens are raised and not to their nutritional content. If you would like eggs free of growth hormones and antibiotics, look for eggs that say this on the packaging. Also, be a little bit critical when you see “organic”. Many people take this to mean “no growth hormones or antibiotics”, but unless the package specifically states this, the term organic may simply mean that the chickens were given organic food to eat.